Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Mona Passage to Puerto Rico

While we were on our 'Christmas break' in Virginia, we were already studying the weather patterns between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. This is a significant trip that requires transiting the ‘Mona Passage’. Entire chapters of books have been dedicated to this crossing. It is a serious passage - sort of like crossing the Gulf Stream. Except three times longer, with worse currents, unpredictable winds that are, predominantly, directly in your face and washing machine seas. Leaving Samana, we have to pass several different capes, use the night-time island winds to help negate the strong trade winds and avoid a huge dangerous shoal. There are areas along our path where the charts have a symbol I had never encountered before –a little spiral-looking tornado thing. Upon closer examination, these represent turbulent water in the middle of the ocean. What?! You are smack in the middle of the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean (and one of its deepest trenches - 25000 feet) and the Caribbean Sea. Some days it flows north, some days south, most days both. Once the Tradewinds settle in to their normal east-to-west direction around Christmas time, there can be periods of weeks or months where crossing is impossible for sailboats, trawlers and other slower vessels.

Our planned route from the DR to Puerto Real
So, you get the picture. When we saw a potential window for us to make the passage on New Year’s Eve, we starting planning. As soon as we got back to 'SeaClearly' – and cleaned up from our refrigerator fiasco – we began the leaving process. Lists, tasks, charts, routes, studying the books, looking at the charts again. Ken and Sylvianne were also eyeing this window to get their Krogen trawler to Puerto Rico and had the same destination in mind - Puerto Real. We compared notes and came to slightly different conclusions based on our individual boats and conditions. ‘Sylken Sea’ would take the northern route above Hour Glass Shoal and then down the west coast of Puerto Rico. About 22 hours for them. ‘SeaClearly’ would go south down the coast of the DR and then cross below the shoal, below Isla de Mona and approach Puerto Rico from the southwest corner.

We expected our trip to be somewhere between 30 – 32 hours. Basically, two days and one night. This is the path recommended by a Caribbean guru, Bruce Van Sandt, but he recommends doing it in two nights with an anchorage stop in the middle at the aforementioned island. It didn’t look like our weather window would hold that long and the forecast got ugly for weeks after this opportunity. We opted to skip the stop and pound our way across.

Sunrise leaving the Dominican Republic
We dealt with Customs – re-enrolled to ‘SeaClearly’  - and made arrangements for the Navy guy to issue a ‘Dispachio’ early in the morning on the last day of the year. He, willingly, agreed to show up at 6:00 am to provide our document so we could leave the port early enough to insure a daylight arrival on the other side. He even wished us a safe trip and God’s protection in our travels. We will, absolutely, take that. At 6:30, still dark, we were pulling in the docklines (by ourselves – nobody around that early), maneuvered out of our slip and into the Bahia Samana. We got a few small rain showers and grey clouds but an otherwise nice morning. 

We slid past Cayo Levantado and out into the mouth of the bay. An hour later, a treat. With the mountains of the Dominican Republic rising to the south of us, the sun shining through the low, grey clouds and ‘SeaClearly’ plowing through calm waters, a whale spout appears then drifts away in the light breeze. Then another. And another. Several hundred yards away but very clear in the morning light, we saw at least five different whales. These are the early arrivals for what will soon be thousands of humpback whales coming to this area to breed and give birth. We were afraid that we might be too early and miss them. But here they were. We suddenly felt much better about our passage.

The rest of the passage was a mixed bag. We alternated from choppy to snotty to slightly scary to calm and spooky. One big issue was our radar. It had stopped working during our run down from the Turks and Caicos. I had gone up the mast while in the DR and checked connections to no avail. So, we still had no radar. This, rightfully, made us nervous. But, getting parts shipped to the DR can be problematic so we decided to make this trip without it and take care of it in Puerto Rico. We still had the AIS to alert us to the big commercial ships. We also had a three-quarter moon and clear skies to help us to see.

We tried our best to sail but that just was not going to happen. We had about one, glorious hour running with the cutter rig. Then, the wind collapsed. Now, being from the Outer Banks, we should have immediately known what comes next. I have said, many times, that the wind in North Carolina only stops to change direction. In the space of five minutes, we went from a nice 12 – 14 knot reaching sail to 4 knots from astern to 23 knots directly on our nose. We fought the headsails in, reefed the main and never properly sailed again until we were 6 miles from Puerto Rico.

At midnight, Atlantic Standard Time, we celebrated the arrival of 2015! No champagne, no hors d'oeuvres, no one sang Auld Lang Syne - just a change of watch - but we were still very happy. I would say it is a New Year’s to remember. 

We passed Isla de Mona in the dark hours of the morning as the moon was setting. The shape of the island was barely visible in the dark. Were it not for the lighthouse on the north end, we could easily have not seen it at all. At that point, we seriously missed the radar, wondered how many things we had not seen and hoped the GPS and charting technologies were all working correctly for us. We did not hit the island.

The final run to Puerto Real just got a little boring. It was a sloppy pounding ride in 4 -6 foot seas and 15 – 18 knots of wind. Not really fun or comfortable. Seeing the headland of Puerto Rico appear through the haze was very exciting. At about 10:00 am, as we made our last course change to approach Puerto Real, ‘Sylken Sea’ popped up on our AIS screen. They were making their final run to the harbor from the north a couple of hours ahead of us. We had powered through the night and made a faster passage than expected.

Ken and Sylvianne had some other Krogen friends who had been skipping, slightly ahead, down our same path and were already docked in Marina Pescaderia .When we arrived in the harbor at noon, on New Year’s Day, the marina was very short-staffed. So Ken, Sylvianne, John and Paulette were there to guide us to a slip, grab our docklines and welcome us to Puerto Rico. Then they invited us to their boat for a New Year’s celebration dinner! I love cruisers.
Seamantha
Sylken Sea


SeaClearly


We called in to US Customs to check in. We had filed a ‘Float Plan’ through the Small Vessel Reporting System website so, as registered US boaters with this float plan number, a phone call was all it took. Now, we can relax a little bit. We have a replacement radar unit being shipped here. This may be our last overnight passage for a couple of months. From here, the path across the southern coast of Puerto Rico, through the Virgin Islands and, technically, all the way to Trinidad, is just day-sailing.

We find it a little hard to believe that this is us. Here we are in Puerto Rico. ‘SeaClearly’ has safely carried us all the way from Colington Harbour to Puerto Real. As dumb as we feel some days, and for all the times we wondered about our sanity, we managed to run down the east coast of the US, cross to the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic and, now, here. Our goal of making it to the Virgin Islands seems a lot more reasonable now than it did when we first said those words out loud back in North Carolina. We may have some scars but, boy, do we have stories!

3 comments:

  1. Scars carry better stories than tattoos. Keep the stories coming! Happy New Year from Colington Harbour!

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    1. Jim, Thanks for the Colington Harbour greetings! Happy New Year to you and yours.
      Duane

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  2. Wow, we are so amazed at you both on this unbelievable adventure. Love the stories, and so glad you didn't get sick from that barracuda! Who knew???? We head for florida on Wednesday. we cannot wait to get out of the harbour and go on our adventure

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